Blitz at sea: Boats burnt, crews escape sanction as illegal fishing off WA skyrockets

The joint ‘Marine Border Command’ operation was announced after the ABF was alerted last month that Indonesian fishing crews were pillaging marine life at the pristine, previously untouched Rowley Shoals, a protected coral reef 260 kilometres west of Broome.

Their presence and aggressive tactics left local charter tour companies in WA’s North West fearful for their safety and livid at the lack of authoritative response.

Exclusive drone footage obtained by WAtoday showed an influx of foreign ships in the sanctioned Rowley Shoals marine park zone, their crew members walking on the coral reef and fishing illegally.

Local boat skippers said it was the first time they had seen Indonesian crews at Rowley Shoals, as new data above showed 103 vessels were intercepted in the first three months of 2020-21 alone.

One tourist operator reported illegal finning in the area, with sharks spotted still alive, lying on the water’s surface, while another charter boat skipper saw Indonesian-marked plastic rubbish for the first time within the sanctioned marine park.

“All they need is the fin for the Chinese market … they don’t need the rest, so they cut the fins off and dump the body,” one experienced charter operator said.

An illegal Indonesian vessel destroyed last month off the coast of Broome.Credit:Australian Border Force

The ABF said late last month its joint-agency operation had resulted in more seizures but denied the pandemic had reduced surveillance and response efforts at sea, as new daily Indonesia COVID-19 case numbers remained in their thousands.

In May, the Marine Border Command joint taskforce intercepted 19 vessels and seized approximately 860 kilograms of trepang (sea cucumber), 105 kilograms of fresh fish, as well as fishing equipment, navigation aids and petrol, in a sign illegal fishing vessels were exploiting inaction.


The surge in activity was reflected in operational figures for the last weekend in October, when 16 vessels were intercepted in just three days – and three of them destroyed at sea – while 630kg of trepang was also seized, as illegal fishing crews flaunted the continued lack of action.

“COVID-19 has not reduced the surveillance and response efforts of the Maritime Border Command,” an ABF spokesperson said.

“Vessels continue to be seized and destroyed.”

Australian Border Force was asked on Friday if the federal government had stopped detaining and prosecuting illegal fishing crews due to the risk of spreading COVID variants.

The joint Maritime Border Command operation featured WA Fisheries on-water patrol vessels, Australian Fisheries officers, navy frigates of the Australian Defence Force and ABF.

Charter operators told WAtoday on Thursday illegal activity had slowed predominantly in the past week while MBC vessels remained present in the area.

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